Did a British news outlet receive the “biggest Islamic State intelligence haul” ever this week?
Sky News reported yesterday that it received 22,000 ISIS personnel files from an embittered ex-terrorist, “on a memory stick stolen from the head of Islamic State’s internal security police.” Outlets like the Daily Mail picked up the story—a journalist’s goldmine. The haul sure sounded bountiful: Rosters of fighters, questionnaires on how wannabe martyrs snuck into the Islamic State, where they came from—solid documentation on the demographics and dreams of the ultraviolent group.
Sky hasn’t published these documents in full online. Instead, the outlet took photos of transcriptions. Oddly, the ISIS members Sky highlights were already known to the public, like propagandist Junaid Hussain.
Even odder, this “exclusive” doesn’t seem to be all that original. Overlapping intel has been available online for over a year.
“All the outlets/agencies that have claimed these documents as exclusives come from a single source based in Turkey who has been shopping himself around as a purported IS defector.” researcher and Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi told Gizmodo. “By the way, at least one prominent American newspaper turned him down for reasons of refusal to pay to obtain documents.”
While several journalists are reporting that Syrian news outlet Zaman al-Wasl first published a similar trove of ISIS personnel documents on Tuesday of this week, that information has been on a publicly-available website since at least January 2015.
So: We have two outlets claiming to have received exclusive ISIS intelligence bounties from a disaffected leaker. Except one (the Zaman leak) is more than a year old, and nobody seems to have noticed. Sky originally claimed to have a much larger number of files, but appears to have walked back that claim. As Agence France-Presse reported today, it appears the Sky News data set isn’t actually files on 22,000 different jihadists—Zaman al-Wasl says it’s actually around 1700 people, which is the same number included in Zaman’s “exclusive” leak.
Sky has since updated its article to remove the 22,000 figure, seemingly as an un-noted correction. Gizmodo has reached out to Sky for comment on when and why it decided to correct its report.
So it appears that these documents came from the same leak—but are they even authentic?
“Based on the very small number of documents we looked at, we concluded that these leaks are credible,” Shiraz Maher, a Johns Hopkins lecturer and fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, told Gizmodo. Maher had cross-referenced some of the documents from the Zaman leak with data the ICSR already had, and found similarities.
But that, of course, doesn’t mean that the documents are authentic, since Maher used a small sample. Other experts interviewed by Agence France-Presse cite inconsistencies that cast these documents in doubt:
Files documenting the deaths of IS militants use the words “date of killing” instead of the typical jihadist term “martyrdom.”
Romain Caillet, an independent jihadism expert, also noted that some documents feature a second, circular logo not previously used on IS files.
“There would be big alarm bells for me, because when I’ve seen inconsistencies like that in the past they’ve been on really shoddily made forgeries,” Charlie Winter, a researcher at Georgia State University, told AFP.
The biggest concerns, Winter said, were the different names, logo, and grammatical mistakes that he described as “very much out of character” for IS documents.
So we have maybe-legit documents that have been floating around online for over a year being breathlessly reported as a beacon of light into ISIS operations.
This situation is not an anomaly. Reporting on ISIS’s movements and digital footprint is often shaky—or plain wrong. News outlets are too credulous towards secondhand reports; it’s difficult for outlets without people within ISIS territory to find trustworthy sources. Like the mythological “ISIS help desk,” this would-be data dump isn’t a journalistic coup. It’s an example of how messy and unreliable reporting on ISIS can be.
Al-Tamimi pointed out several translation problems with the Sky documents, inaccuracies that color the meaning of the report. “Authentic documents or not, Sky News has engaged in significant misrepresentation in at least one instance,” he told Gizmodo. “Question 11 of the documents asks the following (translating from the original Arabic): ‘To which countries have you travelled and for how long did you stay in them?’ Ergo, the question is a simple travel history question, but Sky News represents it as “Which countries have you travelled through?”- i.e. what countries did you travel through to get to Syria? That’s simply not the case.”
This mistranslation changes the meaning of the news. Instead of finding (potentially fake and definitely old) documents that pinpoint how ISIS fighters snuck into the country, the documents really asked for a general travel history. In that way, Sky News distorts the importance of documents. It does exactly the opposite of what news is supposed to do, by cloaking what we know in more muck.